Why aren't we talking about the "disability tax"?

The Chancellor presented some pretty unconvincing reasoning in the Autumn Statement.

As Jonathan Portes writes, the Chancellor's explanation for using the Autumn statement to cut spending in real-terms (which includes the "mummy tax", as well what we might call the "poverty tax", "disability tax", "unemployment tax" and "civil servant tax") doesn't stand up.

The Chancellor said:

With pay restraint in businesses and government, average earnings have risen by around 10% since 2007. Out of work benefits have gone up by around 20%. That’s not fair to working people who pay the taxes that fund them.

Portes responds:

The numbers are correct: but they are highly selective… The value of out of work benefits relative to average earnings (and more broadly the incomes of those in work) has fallen steadily over the past three decades, until the recent slight uptick resulting from the recession…

Unless we are stuck in permanent depression, even a modest recovery will in time lead to earnings rising significantly faster than prices, and the relative value of out of work benefits will decline again. No policy action is required to ensure this (although economic recovery would help!).

The Chancellor was also incredibly sneaky in conflating out-of-work benefits with the other, in-work benefits, which he is also cutting, including local housing allowances – a key part of housing benefit – and "elements" of the child tax credit and the working tax credits.

The child tax credit cut is the one which has been dubbed the "mummy tax" – but focusing on that change to the exclusion of others does damage to the point. Even in the Mail's mummy tax story, for instance, the case-study they present is of a woman who stands to lose far more from the housing benefit cuts than the child tax credit ones. And the idea, implicit in the selective complaints, that it is worse to hurt "mummies" than it is to hurt, say, the disabled is distasteful.

While Osborne may have been sloppy in conflating in- and out-of-work benefits, he was smarter than many commentators in not implying that the change was because such benefits were in some way "unsustainable" – a charge levied by, among others, the Sunday Times' David Smith.

Given 53 per cent of welfare spending goes on pensioners (table 3), the real unsustainable change was made in the last budget. In the spring, Osborne announced a "triple lock" for pensions, guaranteeing that they would be uprated by the higher of CPI, average wages or 2.5 per cent. And sure enough, the Autumn Statement saw the state pension uprated by more than either CPI or average wages.

The Chancellor isn't chasing sustainability. He's just attacking the poor.

Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation